It’s difficult to have a conversation with Ross Gay and not think of a moniker he’s picked up over the years: “the happiest poet around.” Gay is relaxed, genial and clearly excited about his second essay collection (and sixth book overall), Inciting Joy. With its 14 chapters, or “incitements,” covering subjects as disparate as death and losing one’s phone, Gay hopes his new book is proof that he can write—and in fact has always written—about subjects other than delight. “I feel like this book could also be called The Book of Rage,” he explains over our Zoom call. “Connection and holding each other through each other’s sorrow, to me, feels like an inciting force.” This is the premise of Gay’s powerful book, which begins with an imagined party for people and their sorrows, then segues into an exploration of sites where joy and solidarity defiantly abound.
In many ways, Inciting Joy feels emblematic of Gay’s most pivotal works in both poetry and prose, highlighting the beauty of everyday experiences such as communal gardening and enjoying music and the arts. For instance, Luther Vandross’ cover of Dionne Warwick’s “A House Is Not a Home” gets some well-deserved space, as does the comedic genius of Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor and Gay’s late father, Gilbert, affectionately known as “Poochie.” Meanwhile, other chapters explore equally familiar subjects but in surprising ways. For example, in “Insurgent Hoop (Pickup Basketball: The Ninth Incitement),” Gay discusses the necessarily anti-capitalist nature of the neighborhood court, which can only be reserved for one game at a time and where you might find yourself on the same team as someone you beat only moments before. “There’s never a spot or a time or a reason to have a fixed enemy,” he tells me. “We’re just here together for now. How do we decide at this moment, this group of people, how we’re gonna be together?”
This question serves as a throughline for the book, manifesting itself in some of the most inhospitable places, such as the author’s father’s hospital room as the elder Gay was dying from untreatable liver cancer; on the makeshift skating ramps of his youth, where skaters were expected to share tools and protect one another from the wrath of cops and property owners; and most surprisingly, in the football locker room, where off-color jokes were plentiful but so, too, was tenderness. Players often shaved and administered balms to broken (and broken-out) bodies, even as they hurled insults and sexually violent threats to their opponents and to one another. In the longest and perhaps most moving chapter, “Grief Suite (Falling Apart: The Thirteenth Incitement),” Gay explores both the brutality and the brotherhood made possible in such spaces, and he doesn’t shy away from his own complicity in toxic masculinity as a young man.
“How do we decide at this moment, this group of people, how we’re gonna be together?”
These transparencies, says Gay, are not only par for the course but sit at the heart of what he hopes to achieve in Inciting Joy. It was only a few years before the publication of his first collection of essays, The Book of Delights, that Gay realized prose writing could be pleasurable for him—as long as it wasn’t about showcasing some sort of absolute wisdom. “Instead, it could be about leaving an artifact of my thinking and making that as beautiful as possible,” he says. “But ultimately, [I wanted to see] if there was some way to make the residue of my thinking available . . . the residue of my thinking also being the evidence of my changing.”
As a poet, Gay has always been keen on taking the reader on an ever-evolving journey of thoughts and images, and this feat is prominently displayed in the footnotes that populate Inciting Joy. Some of them are so carefully written that Gay himself describes them as “discrete essays.” He says he understands if folks are reluctant to read them, but he insists that readers will miss quite a bit of information if they choose not to. In fact, he likens the footnotes to pauses in conversations between friends, where one person stops the other to ask for more information, or where the storyteller pauses to offer information they feel is crucial to understanding what’s being said. In other words, the marginalia of Inciting Joy share communal knowledge by offering the bounty of the backstory, much in the way gardeners might share seeds or skateboarders might share bolts from their personal buckets of spare parts. “The footnote is like, I’m serious about this,” says Gay. “I want us to know something about each other.”
“Books that I love make me feel regarded. If anyone feels that way, I would be very happy.”
Perhaps the highest praise I can offer for Inciting Joy is that, for Gay and for me, it sparked a delightful conversation about the wealth of stories, characters, memories and subjects the book undertakes, building upon one another to create such a rich biodiversity on the page that I often found myself reading passages multiple times just to make sure I’d absorbed every detail. We chatted about everything from my anxieties about teaching and house hunting in a new city to the generosity of Mr. Lau, the father of one of Gay’s childhood friends who is briefly mentioned in the book and whose donation of clippings from his backyard garden in Pennsylvania now live as fully grown fig trees in Bloomington, Indiana, where Gay lives and teaches.
As we end our call, Gay admits that he’s curious about how Inciting Joy will be received, but his hope for it is a generous one. “Books that I love make me feel regarded,” he says with a grin. “If anyone feels that way, I would be very happy.”
Headshot of Ross Gay © Natasha Komoda